Michigan State comes to South Bend this weekend sporting a six game winning streak over the Irish in Notre Dame Stadium. Like Notre Dame, Michigan State is heading into this week on the heels of a last minute, heartbreaking loss. The Spartans fell to Central Michigan at home 29-27 last week after allowing an onside kick recovery in the final minute of the game.
In general, Michigan State has had Notre Dame’s number in this rivalry. Over the past twelve years, Michigan State is an impressive 9-3 over the Irish – the same record USC has against the Irish over that same span. Charlie Weis specifically is just 1-3 against the Spartans during his reign as the head coach at Notre Dame making this weekend’s contest one he can ill afford to lose.
Notre Dame on Offense
Michigan State surrendered 352 passing yards last week in their home loss to Central Michigan with Chippewas veteran quarterback Dan LeFevour turning in a very efficient 33 of 46 for 328 yards and three touchdown performance (the other 24 yards came on a trick play). LeFevour’s stats would have looked even more impressive had it not been for a few key drops in the first quarter by CMU receivers. Considering Notre Dame’s strength is passing the football, look for the Irish to try to exploit the same weaknesses in the Spartan secondary that Central Michigan was able to take advantage of last weekend.
If Notre Dame can come out and establish the pass early and jump to a quick lead, the offense could be the best defense for Notre Dame this week. Michigan is going to try and establish the running game early against a porous Irish rush defense. If Notre Dame is able to score early and get a lead on Michigan State, they would force the Spartans to play right into their strengths.
Notre Dame certainly has the weapons to be able to throw the ball early and often as well. Michael Floyd has been nothing short of spectacular in the first two weeks of the season. Floyd has hauled in 11 passes for 320 yards and 4 touchdowns placing him second overall in the NCAA in receiving yards. He took 15 stitches to his knee last week causing him to miss the final portion of the fourth quarter against Michigan, but he is expected to be 100% for this weekend. Golden Tate hasn’t put up numbers that are quite as gaudy, but the junior has still caught 12 passes for 174 yards and 2 touchdowns thus far.
Michigan State simply doesn’t have any corners who can stick with either Floyd or Tate in one on one coverage for very long so they will likely try and disrupt the Irish passing game by bringing a lot of pressure early. Jimmy Clausen has done a great job of avoiding negative plays this year in the face of pressure.
Clausen’s been sacked just once (even if the stat sheet shows he hasn’t been sacked yet) and hasn’t thrown an interception. He’s done an excellent job of not forcing the ball and turning the ball over as he did a year ago. What he hasn’t done consistently though is make teams pay for blitzing. He’s avoided the rush and has been getting rid of the ball, but we haven’t seen him catch either Nevada or Michigan in a blitz and make them pay with a big play. For that reason I think we’ll Clausen start to see more and more pressure as teams realize they don’t have an answer for Floyd and Tate on the edges – especially with Kyle Rudolph in the middle of the field.
So far this year, we haven’t seen a whole lot of Rudolph. The sophomore tight end has caught just 7 passes for 67 yards and a touchdown through two games. Michigan State’s speedy linebacker Greg Jones could find himself covering Rudolph one on one at times Saturday if the Spartans give their corners safety help with the Irish receivers. Jones was the Big 10 Pre-Season Defensive Player of the Year so he will present some problems for Rudolph making this an interesting matchup to watch as the game unfolds.
In their loss last week, Michigan State was very efficient at stopping the run in holding Central Michigan to just 66 yards on 29 carries. Notre Dame has been running the ball better this year, but will still probably have some trouble running the ball until it establishes the passing game and softens up the Michigan State defense. In the last couple of meetings, Michigan State has been able to stack the box and force Notre Dame to go to the air. This year they won’t able to do that with potency of the Notre Dame passing attack. Armando Allen has also been steadily improving and looks to be getting closer and closer to having that one breakout game that makes everyone stop and notice him.
In last year’s matchup in East Lansing, turnovers plagued the Irish all game and killed promising drives. Notre Dame shot itself in the foot time and time again last year before finally getting on the scoreboard in the 4th quarter. A weaker Michigan State secondary and much improved Irish offense should allow for the Irish to avoid such a situation again this year.
Notre Dame on Defense
The key to winning this game for Notre Dame on the defensive side of the ball is pretty simple – stop the run and Michigan State’s winning streak in Notre Dame Stadium will be over. The Spartans have had trouble running the ball this year, but the Irish have had trouble stopping offenses from running the ball so it’ll be a battle of weaknesses this weekend.
Last year Javon Ringer wore down the Notre Dame defensive throughout the course of the game and then put the nail in Notre Dame’s coffin in the fourth quarter. Despite his final numbers, the Irish actually did a pretty good job of bottling him up until the defense finally wilted after the offense failed to sustain any sort of offense to keep them off the field. Thankfully, Ringer is gone and Michigan State’s current running backs are still getting their feet wet. Ringer accounted for 97% of Michigan State’s rushing yards last year leaving the Spartans very short on experience in the backfield this year.
Kirk Cousins will take the majority of snaps at quarterback for Michigan State this weekend, but Keith Nichol, the more mobile of two, should also see some action. After seeing what Tate Forcier did to the Irish defense last week, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Nichol see more time than he normally would. Still, neither quarterback comes close to matching Foricer’s speed and athleticism which should allow for the Notre Dame blitz to be much more effective this week.
Jon Tenuta is going to bring pressure all game long as he always does. Whether or not the blitz gets to the quarterback and wraps up when they get there, however, is another story. Notre Dame hasn’t done a very good job so far this year of making plays when they have been there for the making. Hopefully facing a more traditional pro-style quarterback like Cousins will allow for the Notre Dame pass rush to have more of an impact this week.
The one Spartans receiver to really keep an eye on is Blair White. White has good size and is very quick. So far this season he has 16 catches for 267 yards and two touchdowns. Notre Dame is going to have to make sure he is accounted for at all times because Michigan State likes to move him around.
Neither Cousins or Nichol have thrown an interception this season while combining for 7 touchdown tosses. Combined they also have a 168.6 efficiency rating. Cousins, however, has been far more accurate completing 65.7% of his passes compared to just 46.2% for Nichol.
The Spartans have the tools to hit the Irish for some big plays in the passing game, but key to slowing them Saturday will be stopping the run. Mark Dantonio is going to want to keep the Notre Dame offense off the field as much as he can. With two inexperienced players under center, he is also not going to want to put his quarterbacks in difficult situations that could lead to negative plays.
If Notre Dame can stop the run on first and second down and force Michigan State into obvious passing downs, the defense will bounce back fine after last weekend’s tough outing. To do that, they will have to play more disciplined and fundamentally sound than they did a week ago. Tackling has been a major issue so far this year and if Notre Dame doesn’t wrap up again this week and lets two and three yard gains turn into five and six yards gains, this will be a close game till the end.
Notre Dame on Special Teams
James Aldrdige is likely out again this week so look for Barry Gallup to stay on the kick return unit. Gallup looked great on his first two returns last week and has earned another week back there. Notre Dame is still going to try and get the ball in freshman Theo Riddick’s hands on kickoffs though because he has that extra gear Gallup doesn’t seem to have.
The punting game will be interesting to watch last week. Eric Maust is coming off a rough week against Michigan and has freshmen Ben Turk on his heels. If he slips up again this week, Turk could get a chance to take over the punting duties.
After having the best kick coverage unit in the country last season, Notre Dame allowed Michigan’s Daryl Stonnum to take one back for a touchdown last week. It will be interesting to see if there is any new faces on the kick return team this weekend.
Michigan State has clearly had Notre Dame’s number in this series over the last twelve years – especially when the games are played in Notre Dame Stadium. With an inconsistent running game and a couple young quarterbacks for Michigan State, this should be the year Notre Dame can get some revenge on the Spartans. If Notre Dame can come out to a hot start on offense, Michigan State doesn’t have the offense to be able to keep up.
I think Notre Dame will jump out to a quick lead with Michigan State making it close in the second half before Notre Dame pulls away at the end.
Notre Dame 34, Michigan State 23
Week 1 – Notre Dame 42, Nevada 21 (W, Notre Dame 35-0)
Week 2 – Notre Dame 34, Michigan 21 (L, 34-38)